A New Science of Faith; Busting the Secularization Myth

Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist, studies what causes people to commit good or evil in the name of God - photo by Martin Dee
Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist, studies what causes people to commit good or evil in the name of God – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 1 | Jan. 4, 2007

By Asst. Prof. Ara Norenzayan
Dept. of Psychology, Faculty of Arts

Belief in God has often been blamed for much of the violence in the world, and many see secularization as a safeguard against religious intolerance and violence. Yet we have found no empirical support for the contention that believing in God in and of itself promotes hatred and violence, although dogmatic belief and boundary-setting religious tendencies, like their secular counterparts, do.

In the last several years, my research has investigated religion as a group of interrelated behaviours deeply rooted in basic human needs and ordinary mental dispositions, transmitted culturally across minds, and recurrent across societies and historical time. As a social psychologist, I’m interested in how religious beliefs are formed in the mind, what motivates people to arrive at and hold these beliefs, and when these beliefs encourage costly and apparently irrational behaviours, such as violent martyrdom, or benign ones like altruism towards strangers.

Although there is no scientific consensus yet as to what religion is and how to explain it, there is growing agreement that a natural science of faith, religion, and spirituality is the next big thing on the horizon. Judging from the recent flurry of best-selling books and scientific conferences on religion, scientists and philosophers are awakening to the reality of religion as a reliable aspect of human nature and culture.

Passionate devotion to God has waned little, no matter what scientists and scholars have predicted. In 1851, French historian Ernest Renan wrote that Islam would be the last religious creation of humanity. Others — from Freud to Dawkins — have subscribed to what the sociologist Peter Berger calls the “secularization myth,” that with the advances of science and technology, and the growing affluence of societies, religion, like alchemy and body armor, will become a thing of the past. Until now, scientists have either ignored religion, or railed against it.

At the dawn of the 21st century, religions are multiplying, growing and mutating at a brisk pace. In one estimate, two to three religions per day are created in the world today, although only a few survive and propagate in the cultural marketplace.

Pentecostalism, a Christian fundamentalist “charismatic” sect, is likely to have one billion members by 2050 if current trends continue. Fundamentalism among Islam’s 1.3 billion people progresses apace, and fundamentalist movements are also making significant inroads into Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism.

The United States — the world’s most economically and militarily powerful society with a highly educated population and a scientifically advanced one — is also one of the most religious: 96 per cent of Americans believe in God, 93 per cent and 85 per cent believe in heaven and hell respectively, and almost 50 per cent believe in devils and in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In one line of research, my graduate student Ian Hansen and I examined what, if anything, belief in God contributes to the tendency to scapegoat other religious groups for the problems of the world, which is often associated with religious intolerance. In a sample of more than 10,000 people across several continents and encompassing all the major religious groups of the world, we found, unsurprisingly, that those who dogmatically believe that their God or belief is the only true one, were more likely to scapegoat. However, secularization did not seem to be associated with reduced scapegoating: those who believed in the existence of God actually were less likely to scapegoat.

More directly relevant to violence, with the psychologist Jeremy Ginges at the New School for Social Research, we examined Muslim Palestinian support for suicide attacks against Israelis. Contrary to popular belief, those who prayed to God frequently were no more or less likely to support suicide attacks than those who did not, although those who frequently attended Mosque were more likely to endorse violent martyrdom. This pattern was not unique to Muslims, however: in another study, Jewish religious settlers in the West Bank who were reminded of prayer to God were less likely to approve of violence against Palestinians compared to those reminded of synagogue attendance. My graduate student Azim Shariff and I have also found that in controlled experiments of altruistic behaviour, unconscious reminders of the presence of God increased generosity towards anonymous strangers among Canadians.

If religion and spirituality in one form or another are part of what it is to be human, then a science of faith, from neuroscience to sociology, is one essential element in multicultural civil societies such as Canada and the United States. A science of faith cannot tell us about moral choices and about the meaning of life; it neither condemns nor defends religion, any more than biology exalts or assails spider webs or beaver dams; but it can tell us important things about the origins and consequences of religious beliefs and experiences.